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Clinic, Physicians Hit with Multimillion-Dollar Suit in Joan Rivers Case

Melissa Rivers says conduct was "almost incomprehensible."

Published: January 27, 2015

Accusing 5 physicians and Yorkville Endoscopy of a "level of medical mismanagement, incompetency, disrespect and outrageous behavior" that was "shocking" and "almost incomprehensible," Melissa Rivers has filed a multi-million dollar lawsuit in Manhattan (N.Y.) Supreme Court, alleging that negligence was responsible for the death of her mother, comedian Joan Rivers, last September, according to news reports.

The complaint alleges that the tragic series of events that unfolded at the Manhattan clinic on Aug. 28 began when Ms. Rivers's vital signs flagged while the clinic's medical director at the time, Lawrence Cohen, MD, was performing a routine endoscopy. At that point, Gwen Korovin, MD, Ms. Rivers's private physician, who wasn't authorized to practice in the facility and who later fled the scene, tried for a second time to insert a scope into the patient's windpipe, attempting to perform an unplanned vocal cord biopsy, according to the suit.

Anesthesiologist Renuka Bankulla, MD, spoke up, warning that Ms. Rivers's throat was badly swollen and asking that a scope be reinserted to assess how bad the swelling was. But Dr. Cohen allegedly dismissed the concern, saying: "You're being paranoid. You're such a curious cat. You always need to see everything." Meanwhile, according to the complaint, Dr. Cohen then began taking photos with his cellphone of Dr. Korovin at work, saying Ms. Rivers "will like to see these in the recovery area."

Eventually the team realized that Ms. Rivers was "suffering from an airway obstruction and/or laryngospasm," but instead of immediately calling for a crash cart that might have contained succinylcholine, Dr. Bankulla waited several minutes before calling for help from 2 other anesthesiologists, Robert Koniuta, MD, and Suzanne Scarola, MD. The team did chest compressions and tried to administer oxygen through a mask, but to no avail.

In perhaps the most shocking allegation, the complaint states that after 17 minutes of failed attempts to revive Ms. Rivers, Dr. Bankulla called for Dr. Korovin to perform an emergency cricothyrotomy, but Dr. Korovin had reportedly fled the clinic to avoid being caught.

By the time Ms. Rivers was taken to Mt. Sinai Hospital, she had suffered irreversible brain damage, according to the suit. She died 7 days later.

In addition to Yorkville Endoscopy, Drs. Cohen, Korovin, Bankulla, Koniuta and Scarola are named in the suit, which also says that Ms. Rivers was a victim of her own celebrity because her doctors were star-struck and trying to please her. She "needed a doctor, not a groupie," says Jeffrey Bloom, one of the lawyers representing Melissa Rivers.

The clinic has said it's not appropriate to comment publicly regarding the lawsuit. Meanwhile, a lawyer for Dr. Bankulla tells The New York Times that the "claims of malpractice against her are unfounded."

Jim Burger

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